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On the further invention of nonviolence


Kathy Kelly of Chicago just returned home from her summer trip.

It was a six-week getaway to sunny Basra in the South of Iraq.

This vacation package featured 100-plus temperatures for six weeks, electrical outages for 14 hours a day, no air conditioning, no ceiling fans, only occasional phone service and constant water shortages. The nearly daily sorties by low-flying U.S. and British war planes that rattled all the houses in the neighborhood, reminders of the bombs that dropped back in January 1999 just a few houses from where she was staying, kept boredom at bay.

Kelly arrived in mid-July with Lisa Gizzi of St. Paul, Minn.; Mark McGuire of Winona, Minn., and Tom Jackson and Lauren Cannon, both of Dover, N.H. A sixth member, Ken Hannaford-Ricard of Worcester, Mass., stayed for two weeks. The group stayed in the al-Jumhouriya neighborhood, described in one Associated Press story as “a labyrinth of mostly one-story crumbling brick houses bisected by open sewage and dotted with dumps of uncollected garbage.”

Kelly returned Sept. 6 to the United States, and her work at Voices in the Wilderness, a group that has opposed the U.S. sanctions against Iraq since 1995. The work has become her life (NCR May 21, 1999).

The summer trip was the latest and longest of many visits she has made to Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, when she and others camped out on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in a wild, crazy act of nonviolence. It is difficult to get heard over the roar of the war machine.

But ever so gradually her voice has been magnified. Almost monthly for several years Voices has organized “delegations” that travel to Iraq to see the results of the sanctions, to hear firsthand the sorrow in a country where as many as 5,000 children a month under the age of 5 die because of the sanctions. Hundreds of people have headed off on the unlikely journey to this war-ravaged country. The day she got back from her latest trip she was on the phone with a TV reporter from Brazil who was trying to hook up with a delegation. Little by little the word goes out from the returning delegations: The war in Iraq has not ended.

Somewhere in the early light of human existence folks began to experiment with violence. Since then, the race has spent a staggering amount of will and imagination, not to mention money and resources, on war making. Kelly and others like her insist on standing in defiance of all of that history. They experiment with the mad notion of nonviolence.

So what does a summer in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Basra yield for the nonviolence effort?

In a phone interview Kelly kept talking about the details of daily living. The meager rations of the U.N. food basket augmented by a few homegrown eggplants and tomatoes. Nothing works anymore in Iraq -- not water systems or the garbage trucks that used to make daily rounds -- because spare parts and new machinery are forbidden under the sanctions.

But mostly it was hot. “There’s just not much you can do because you’re so hot,” she said. “You can’t pick up a pen and paper because within minutes the paper would be soaked. You can’t phone out because the phones won’t work. You can’t read late at night because there is no light. People just become weary. Very, very weary.”

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the target of the sanctions, is almost nonexistent in the daily equation. He isn’t suffering. And organizing for social change is not high on the list for people struggling to survive.

Despite the heat and poverty, Kelly and the others managed to do a lot. They studied Arabic with the families who hosted them. They looked into the eyes of the women and men who survive the sanctions and heard their wonder: “Why are people in the United States angry with us. What have we done?”

They marveled at people who daily face insoluble problems and intense needs with civility and dignity. They watched the children, “wildly happy, creative and unspoiled children.” Through the children, they began to understand how deeply the people of these poor neighborhoods draw upon their Islamic faith and centuries of cultural customs to work through desperate times.

And that’s what the movement, the effort for nonviolence, her life’s work at the moment, yields -- something utterly, almost ridiculously human. No summits, no conferences, no dignitaries. Just the sweat of a grimy street in Iraq and a look into the eyes of the “enemy.” It is the antithesis of war, which rips up the daily routine and grinds life under with the machinery of the utterly inhumane.

Kelly, 47, a former high school English teacher, says with a quiet contentment that this is her life. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing in my work or my personal life than trying to be part of the further invention of nonviolence. In the time when I happened to be born into this world there’s a level of violence that could annihilate the whole world. I want to be part of the tradition that chips away at this propensity for violence. The window for me has been what I’ve learned from the people of Iraq.

“The larger call, particularly from the gospel message,” she said, “is to bring about the practice of forgiveness, of loving enemies and of a clear and determined refusal to kill.”

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000